It shouldn’t take an airport blockade to stop mass deportations

Reposted from The Guardian, 30/3/17. Text by Gracie Mae Bradley

The UK’s ‘hostile environment’ for migrants has led to huge numbers of people being detained, mistreated and deported – and enriched private detention providers

On Tuesday night, at least 17 people blockaded the runway at Stansted Airport to prevent a mass deportation to Ghana and Nigeria. Tens of people were due to be deported, including some who have lived in the UK for several years, and others with outstanding asylum claims. For now, the flight has been cancelled, and everyone who was on it remains in the UK. Seventeen arrests have now been made.

 Stansted anti-deportation protesters block flight to Nigeria and Ghana

There has been overwhelming dismay at the election of Donald Trump and many of his inaugural policies, including a now-defunct executive order banning all refugees from the US, as well as migrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. It has also not gone unnoticed that the prime minister’s refusal to guarantee the post-Brexit rights of EU citizens living in the UK comes at a time of markedly heavy-handed immigration enforcement against EU nationals. There has been a fivefold increase in the number of Europeans in immigration detention since 2009, and a contentious new policy providing for the removal of EU citizens sleeping rough in the UK has operated since May 2016.

However, in a climate of rising protest, few seem to have drawn many parallels between Trump’s anti-immigrant platform, and the policies that characterised May’s time in the Home Office, despite the harsh measures deployed by both to target undocumented migrants; and in May’s case, migrants from outside the EU. Hopefully, following this week’s action, that will change.

As of 2012, the creation of a “hostile environment” for migrants has been stated Home Office policy, bringing border controls into workplaces, letting agencies, banks, playgrounds and hospitals. However, tacit measures with a similar aim have operated for much longer. Since the late 1990s, migrants’ access to public services, welfare benefits, and legal advice has been dramatically eroded. The UK’s highly lucrative immigration detention estate has ballooned, despite the well-documented human rights violations it houses: inadequate access to medical care (in 2014 one woman died after being offered paracetamol for a heart attack); alleged violence and abuse at the hands of guards, and near-universal suffering caused by indefinite incarceration.

Mass deportations are a cornerstone of this hostile environment. Since 2001 they have taken place under the cover of night primarily to Britain’s former colonies or sites of British military intervention, such as Pakistan, Nigeria and Kosovo. These secretive, privately chartered flights help the government meet targets for removals from the UK, and, as Corporate Watchhas highlighted, they often carry people whom the Home Office believe will resist deportation, sometimes in a bid to save their own lives.

People are rounded up in advance based on their perceived nationality in the interests of filling the plane, and in some cases, without an opportunity to lodge or resolve a legal claim. The practice of taking “reserves” – people who do not find out until the last minute whether or not they will be on the flight, but are told to say their goodbyes and taken to the airport nevertheless – continues, despite the Inspectorate of Prisons having criticised it for “lacking in humanity”.

When Jimmy Mubenga died while being restrained by G4S guards in 2010, their attempt to deport him to Angola was witnessed by commercial passengers on that British Airways flight; at least one person heard him scream that he couldn’t breathe. On charter flights there are no such witnesses to the restraints and physical force that are frequently deployed, only other deportees and guards working for Tascor.

Britain’s immigration system is fundamentally flawed, with many of the people not deemed worthy of asylum in fear for their lives if they return to their country. One woman, a lesbian who had fled Nigeria due to her sexuality, told the Detained Voices project that her ex-husband knew that she would soon be arriving back there and was planning to murder her. One person whose entire family had been killed by Boko Haram feared being similarly targeted on their return.

It shouldn’t take people chaining themselves together on airport tarmac to prevent migrants from being deported to situations in which their lives are at risk. That much should be manifest to anyone who claims that respect for human rights and the rule of law are fundamental British values. Mass deportations, with their payment-by-numbers motivation, are arbitrary and inhumane, and must end.

Now is the time for urgent reflection on the securitised, privatised borders that permeate the society we live in today. Should pregnant women and migrant children really be afraid to attend hospitals and schools? How can we tolerate that record numbersof people are taking their own lives in Britain’s immigration detention centres? And whose interests are served by the current moral panic about a negligible number of undocumented migrants? There is still time to change course.


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